Somewhere near the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, there is an earthbound constellation of red lights which, in the rain-washed dirty windshield, I couldn’t make out as a windmill farm. The random flickering became more systematic the closer I came to the inevitable horizon of evening and night. The windmills looked like a cemetery of pinwheel metal crosses, holding court over a decidedly lonely stretch of highway. It’s Halloween and I’m listening to Lou Reed’s New York in the most un-Manhattan place I could conjure, this side of the Pacific. For the first time since I’ve moved to the Midwest, I’m homesick, and what brought me to the revelation? A live Pearl Jam concert from almost four years ago to the day. It was the first of three dates in Philadelphia and the Viking funeral for the soon-to-be-demolished Spectrum. Eddie Vedder was talking about Chase Utley hitting a home run in the World Series, and I was clearing out a space in my heart for warm hands and fresh bit of daylight. That room is now a vacant lot, grown over by long hair and bad unsolicited poetry. I had to shut off satellite radio and I went back to a leather wrapped anchor to steady the hand and count the miles to Madison.
With the exception of the mournful tone poem which is Magic and Loss, Lou Reed’s late 80s guitar punk resurrection, New York, is probably my favorite post-Velvet Underground LP. Right from the quick, the stutter-start guitar intro to “Romeo Had Juliette” is everything you’d ever wanted in wrap-around RayBan cool–streetlight poetry, switchblade swaggering riff, the whole song can turn a Southern Wisconsin interstate into the Lower East Side of teenage imaginations–seductive, dangerous, happening. It’s enough to make you trade all your Hyde Park collars and sensible Oxfords for black pocket t-shirts and scuffed chukka boots. You can feel Lou Reed bend the will of a Brill Building songwriter’s pedigree into the manic desperation of gutters and alleys–passing a graceful hand over the seedy and damaged. It’s the humanity silverlining the damned which is New York’s enduring echo–a culmination of pulp bohemian junkie rhetoric sprung from the Warhol Factory into an empathy for the marginalized and exploited. The character studies are never thumbnail sketches of “low-life” grotesques–the people who inhabit Lou Reed’s New York are given depth and shade. It’s what has always separated Reed’s songs from a myriad of Bowery-wannabes. The poetry is Reed’s communion with the street–at his best he becomes the conduit–never outshining his subject, unflinching in the face of detail.
As much as the album is itself the Five Boroughs, Lou Reed encompasses the beatnik cosmology and environmentalism. In another voice, it could come off as half-baked, but “Last Great American Whale” somehow reaches back into a half-considered ghost dream of the city before steel and steam, predating industry and immigrants. What makes it work has as much to do with a deliberate mindful world-weariness as it does smart-ass antagonism. For all of his confrontational attitude, there is a surprising amount of humor and humility that gets lost in the proto-punk mythos. For every “Heroin” or “Walk on The Wild Side,” there’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” or “What’s Good?” or “New York Telephone Conversation.” Reed understood who he spoke for, and when he comes close to the soapbox, it comes across as something less didactic and more conversation–a conversation with an informed opinion.
Jazz pianist Bill Evans spoke about music as conversation. Growing up, Lou Reed’s albums like New York or Coney Island Baby (let alone the whole damn Velvet Underground catalog) were the late night diner conversations which I imagined held silent sway over any place I wanted to call home. When you grow up next to a cornfield, it’s hard to feel that life could ever be anything but big skies and dirt roads. Lou Reed gave me a map and legend, passing promise on to me as a neon poemed light where sleepless cities have soul and solace.
It is this capacity to be at once so open-armed but yet so stark which helped guide me to social work, and inform my sense of community and outreach to the underserved in the arts. If you ask a dozen record geeks about who embodies “humanitarian” in the music world, I doubt Lou Reed jumps past Bono or Michael Stipe, but in the same way Joe Strummer challenged me to make my world a better place, Lou Reed taught me to try and understand people. Our ability to see ourselves in a spectrum gives us the inherent permission to feel and engage, and while it gets harder the older I get, coming back to New York when I’m this alone helps.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL. He also thinks you should spin “What’s Good?” just once for Lou Reed.
Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.